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Children: Obesity — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 6th February 2013.

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Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 3:07 pm, 6th February 2013

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the factors contributing to the rise in childhood obesity.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, obesity is a complex issue, and there are many factors that contribute to children becoming obese. We are committed to tackling obesity in children. Our call to action on obesity sets out the actions that everyone needs to take. For our part we will continue investing in the Change4Life programme, the national child measurement programme, and the School Games.

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, one-third of our children are already obese, and the fact is that cheap fast food can be a major contributor to obesity. The Government's responsibility deal for calorie reduction has signed up 31 companies, which have promised to reformulate their products to make them less fattening. However, according to the Department of Health's website, not one of these signatories is a fast-food operator. Does this not suggest a failure of the voluntary approach and that we need regulation, as the BMA says, to make food companies play their proper part in reducing obesity?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. In fact, the responsibility deal has led to a number of very important gains and benefits, not least from food companies: food retailers as well as food manufacturers. Calorie labelling, for example, has expanded rapidly in out-of-home settings; we now have labelling in around 9,000 outlets across the country, which is to be welcomed. As my noble friend said, 31 companies, some of them household names, have signed up to the responsibility deal calorie reduction pledge. However, this is an area that we continue to work on, and I think my noble friend's comments are well placed.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, will the Minister accept that in Wales the figures for childhood obesity in those aged between 2 and 15 are three percentage points worse than those in England? As responsibility for some aspects of these matters is devolved and for others is not, can his department take up with the Government of Wales in Cardiff how a coherent plan can be undertaken to tackle this?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the noble Lord will understand that we tread warily when it comes to interfering in the affairs of the devolved Administrations. However, I take his point, because on serious public health messages such as this we need to have a co-ordinated approach. Members of my department are in regular contact with their counterparts in Wales.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, the Minister mentioned sport. Beneficial as it is, does he accept that obesity is caused overwhelmingly by overeating and eating foods that cause obesity? Are there any media initiatives to direct young people to what is healthy to eat and to foods that cause less obesity, as well as to sports programmes?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I completely agree with the noble Baroness that for children especially, exercise and sport are vital, which is why there are a number of initiatives in that area. She asked about media campaigns. Change4Life continues to support families to make simple changes to adopt a healthier diet and increase their physical activity levels. We are currently planning a summer campaign to encourage physical activity in children. The campaign remains subject to formal approval but is very much in our minds. Change4Life, I would just add, uses the full range of communication channels, including TV advertising, press, and local supporter activity. It is a well known brand and we intend to stick with it.

Photo of Lord Eden of Winton Lord Eden of Winton Conservative

My Lords, does not the Answer to the first Question on the Order Paper really depend upon the plans that the Minister will deploy before the House in his Answer to the second Question?

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I am going to take two bites of the cherry because I shall also briefly address the second Question. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, constantly reminds me that eating too many calories, not simply not exercising, is what causes me to be overweight, although I do exercise. However, when I pick up and eat a tub of low-fat yoghurt, which I have been doing for the past few years, thinking that I am eating healthily, I have not been able to read the very small print that states that this "low-fat, healthy" tub of yoghurt is packed full of sugars and calories. Actually, just before Christmas, I stopped eating low-fat yoghurts and I hope that noble Lords will appreciate the effect it has had on me. However, my specific question is: when will the noble Earl take the necessary statutory steps to ensure proper food labelling?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, food labelling is largely governed by EU law and, at the moment, the EU directive is permissive about front-of-pack labelling. However, I take his point that it is very important that consumers are properly informed about what they are eating, and we are working with food manufacturers and retailers to ensure that there is much greater transparency in this area, across the piece, whether it relates to sugar, fats or salt.

Photo of Baroness Trumpington Baroness Trumpington Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister two questions. First, does he not agree that cheap food has become far more delicious than it was in the youth of most people in this Chamber? Secondly, children like to copy their heroes. Could not the media be persuaded to make greater use of physical heroes, such as footballers, tennis players or any kind of sporting hero, in order to promote less obesity?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My noble friend makes a very good point about role models. To a certain extent, that has been tried and tested in the past with some success. As regards food and its taste, I would say each to their own, but she is right that we are encouraged in all sorts of subtle ways to eat more than we used to in years gone by. The responsibility deal calorie reduction pledge specifically enables businesses to contribute to our challenge to the nation in this area, which we issued as part of the call to action on obesity in 2011, to reduce total calorie consumption by 5 billion calories a day.